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Nuffield research reveals that IRO roles are not being fully realised

Date:1 APR 2014
Journals Manager + Online Editor

Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) are prevented from realising high quality planning for children in care due to the challenges of making the role work in practice, according to a research published by the National Children's Bureau and the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.

Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) were introduced to represent the interests of looked after children following a number of cases where care plans had not been implemented, leading to harm.    

The findings of this study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, indicate that the IRO role in ensuring high quality care planning is yet to be fully realised. There is, however, consensus about the characteristics of an IRO service that are working well; the challenge is how to ensure that the theory is translated into practice.

High case loads, an inability to assert independence and confront poor practice, time constraints, a lack of resources and an expectation to conduct other duties outside the IRO remit, all contribute towards an inconsistent application of IRO core duties as laid out in the 2011 statutory guidance. IROs expressed concerns that conflicting priorities risked looked after children ceasing to be the priority.

Senior managers were seen as vital in ensuring IROs felt supported and valued, but their commitment was not always evident. Failure to deal with high caseloads and to provide effective mechanisms for dealing with concerns were seen as a lack of senior management commitment to the service. In addition, access to external sources of support such as the provision of independent legal advice or a dispute resolution protocol, varied greatly. 

IROs directly employed by the local authority (95%) enjoyed some positive benefits from this association; such as an understanding of local authority context. But some argued this prevented IROs from working 'independently' of the authority, creating a conflict of interest and in some instances hindering the IRO's ability to challenge on poor practice. Participants described the true test of independence as IROs' ability to recognise when to challenge the local authority on poor practice AND their ability to do so.

The study recognised key elements which would help support an independent approach:

  • Demonstrating professional status and respect: by resourcing the service properly; being paid at the same level as a team manager and being openly given 'permission' to challenge.
  • Ensuring IROs with the right skills: particularly the ability to communicate with children and young people, and to know how and when to challenge.
  • Access to expert advice and resources, including independent legal advice and opportunities for reflective practice.
  • Dispute resolution protocols that work, from informal conversations to the escalation of cases to senior management.
  • Ensuring 'child-centred' IROs, who demonstrate their commitment to each child and work out the best way to seek their views.
  • Having a focus on outcomes, and holding agencies to account for their contribution towards these.

Dr Hilary Emery, Chief Executive of the National Children's Bureau said:

'While there is clearly a theoretical understanding of what makes an Independent Reviewing Officer service successful, this study indicates that in practice, the IRO role in providing the best possible care planning is yet to be fully realized. We must ensure that IROs are supported to provide the high-quality service that children in the care system need, taking a child-centred approach and making sure that conflicting priorities or inadequate support do not put looked after children at risk of not being the priority.

Our research clearly sets out the key ingredients that are required to ensure IROs play an effective independent role that is always focused on achieving the best outcomes for every child in care. We must ensure these are widely promoted and that local authorities learn from each other in understanding how to deliver a high-quality service for all looked after children.'

The full report is available to download below.